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Report from Canada's Shaw Festival -- 2012
North America's Greatest Theater Company


by Isidor Saslav





(Swans - December 3, 2012)   Well, I'm not the only one who says so. Theater critics from everywhere are constantly writing reviews from there in which they express their amazement that a theater company like it could exist anywhere so far from Broadway. I have been a visitor to the Shaw Festival on and off since 1973 -- in recent years mostly on -- and can add my praise to that of all those other critics mentioned. Canada's probably more well-known Stratford Festival devoted to the plays of William Shakespeare is about a two-hour drive from the Shaw Festival northwest.

The Shaw Festival, founded in 1962 by Brian Doherty, is located in the well-preserved and picturesque colonial-period garden town Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, about a half-hour's drive into Canada from Niagara Falls. The first season consisted of a limited run of two of George Bernard Shaw's plays in the Court House Theatre. Today's season by contrast now extends from April to October, with at least three plays and/or musicals being presented each day for six days a week (Monday is the off day) in four different theaters. The original CHT was added to by the opening of a modern 800-seat Festival Theatre in 1973, and a refurbished former vaudeville house going back to WWI, The Royal George. A recently-added studio theater devotes itself to more modern, experimental offerings. The annual repertoire of the Festival is structured around two plays by Shaw himself plus about eight others written by Shaw's contemporaries (Shaw lived from 1856 to 1950) or spiritual relatives and theatrical commentators on questions Shaw himself would frequently address in his plays. Recent seasons have seen large representations of plays by Harley Granville Barker, Noel Coward, and Terence Rattigan, not to mention frequent appearances of plays by the American playwrights Tennessee Williams and William Inge, plus constant presentations of relatively unknown "New Woman" female playwrights from ca 1900. This year's candidate was Githa Sowerby, whose play A Man and Some Women (1914) was presented. This play concentrates on the financial relationships between men and married and unmarried women of the time.

A repertory company of about 150 actors, directors, visual and sound designers, and musicians sees to it that the constant flow of summer tourists from both the U.S. and Canada and many other countries whose citizens are seen among the hundreds who swarm along the shop-filled downtown streets, cameras in hand, ready to enjoy gastronomical and thespian treats are never disappointed that they have undertaken this journey to North America's theatrical Mecca. A network of hotels such as The Prince of Wales Hotel and numerous bread-and-breakfasts spread out in the quiet town streets and toward Lake Ontario see to it that the visitors are well taken care of.

Niagara-on-the-Lake's Shaw Festival carries on the tradition started in England in the 1920s by theater entrepreneur Barry Jackson. Jackson, originally active in Birmingham, and who had already presented there the British premiere of Shaw's 5-play "Pentateuch" Back to Methuselah in 1923 was intent on founding a "British Bayreuth" devoted to the plays of Shaw just as Germany's Bayreuth had been dedicated to Wagner's operas. Jackson chose a quiet town in the west of England just short of Wales, Malvern. The Malvern Festival carried on until it was shut down by World War II and then resumed operations for a few seasons after the war. It may be going still for all I know but the emphasis on Shaw has definitely shifted to Canada (which Shaw never visited.)

I have seen and attended some of the most brilliant theatrical events in my life at the Festival over the past four decades. I have been going there so long that the stories I relate of previous productions are often a complete mystery to the present crop of actors and directors now working there. Canadian professor Leonard Connolly, the current president of the International Shaw Society of which I too am a founding member, has just written a comprehensive and attractive photo-filled history of the first 50 years of the Shaw Festival. The ISS holds one of its annual conferences at the Festival (usually including Shaw's birthday, July 26) and we have just finished this year's Festival conference at which, as usual, many brilliant papers on Shaw's life and career were read. This year's papers concentrated on the two Shaw plays presented at the Festival this year, Misalliance (1910) and The Millionairess (1935).

Misalliance is perhaps the only play ever written in which the action centers around an offstage airplane crash into a country house conservatory; and features one of Shaw's greatest female characters, the female Polish pilot Lina Szczepanowska ("Say 'fish'; say 'cheese'. Now say 'Shchepanovska'."). Szczepanowska descends as a dea ex machina, literally out of the skies and literally out of a real machine, an airplane, to fix everyone's problems at the summerhouse, the problems usually consisting of an underabundance of exercise and an overemphasis on sex.

The Millionairess presents us with still another of Shaw's most striking characters, Epifania Ognisanti de Parerga, the richest woman in England, with a bossy, commanding nature to go along with the £30,000,000 inheritance from her father she nervously maintains and intends to keep as her own. Epifania bears a strong resemblance to and seems to be Shaw's take on Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler (1890) (another Festival offering this summer.) Both women are upper-class snobs with a fixation on their late father as model and inspiration, like to manage other people's lives and properties, and are prone to violent acts: Hedda with her pistols and Epifania's delight in beating people up. Fortunately for Epifania she doesn't, like Hedda, shoot herself, but manages to marry the object of her choice, her foil, the dark-skinned Egyptian doctor whose name in the play we never hear but who seems to have acquired the name Ahmed el Kabir in the movie (see below.) Epifania's husband whom she wishes to divorce, one Alastair Fitzfassenden, in his characterization as a champion boxer who keeps Epifania in line with his solar plexus punch, seems to be modeled after Shaw's recently found and admired friend former heavyweight champion Gene Tunney.

Epifania's style and mindset can best be visualized by realizing that probably the greatest Epifania to appear on the stage was the late Katharine Hepburn, a highly commanding sort of person and actress in her own right, who scored great successes with the role in London and New York in 1952. I say, "stage" rather than "stage and screen," because one of the greatest opportunities to film a legendary role was sadly passed over when Hepburn and Preston Sturges, celebrated director of comic screen masterpieces and set to adapt Shaw's play for the movies, could interest no studio either in America or in England to take on the project despite both luminaries' stellar reputations and previous successes. A paper at the conference read by ISS member Don McInerny poignantly apprised us what the world had missed by not having had the Hepburn/Sturges project immortalized on the screen. McInerny had actually visited Sturges's son and the son had shown Don the actual screenplay his father had prepared for the adaptation, excerpts from which Don read to us. With the greatest of tact and skill, Sturges had amplified visually but had never distorted the points made by Shaw's words for the stage.

With chagrin one has to report that The Millionairess was finally made into a movie in 1960 starring Sophia Loren and Peter Sellers. Despite the latter two stars' other great virtues, this version stands beside Peter O'Toole's and Ginette Niveu's Great Catherine (1968) as one of the two worst transferrings ever of Shaw's plays to the screen. Despite direction by Anthony Asquith, the same director who had launched Shaw's movie vogue with Pygmalion (1938) and roles for Alistair Sim as Sagamore, the lawyer who manages Epifania's affairs, and Vittorio de Sica as owner of a sweatshop that Epifania transforms by her managerial skills, nevertheless the liberties taken with Shaw's original concept keep this film low on the totem pole of great Shaw film settings. An example of the modernized approach to Shaw's world is the advertising poster for the film (a copy of which I have in my collection and which prominently graces the Wikipedia article on this movie). The film shows a glamorous Sophia Loren with lengthy cigarette holder in hand archly looking toward a tiny Peter Sellers's way and asking, "Do you make night calls, Doctor?" That gives you the idea.


Correction (added on December 17, 2012): In the text above, Ginette Niveu should read Jeanne Moreau, and Don Mcinerny should read John McInerney. Please see the Letter to the Editor in which the author alerted the editor and explained the errors.


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Published December 3, 2012